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A Gaza cease-fire: historic or futile?

The immediate focus on achieving a cease-fire in the Gaza conflict is fascinating for those who are mediating, and for what they must do to achieve success. We continue to witness significant new dimensions come into play in the Palestinian-Israeli and wider Arab-Israeli conflicts, and this can only be positive in the long run.

Let me start with the second point, which is the cause of the fighting and what needs to be done to stop it forever, and not only for this round of fighting. The emphasis on an immediate cease-fire is understandable, but it is a futile and temporary fix if it only aims to stop the attacks from both sides, without addressing the underlying causes of the violence. Those causes include two main and related issues for the Palestinians: ending the siege and blockade of Gaza by Israel, and ending the refugees status of the Palestinians as a whole.

A cease-fire is desirable, but it is no solution because it would return us to the status quo ante of early November, in which Israel was laying siege to Gaza by controlling its borders, airspace and territorial waters, and attacking it regularly. The emergence of Hamas and other resistance movements since the early 1980s reflects the deeper cause of the conflict, which is the Palestinian exile that began in 1947-1948. This must be resolved equitably and realistically, if we wish to achieve stability, security and a normal life for all concerned.

There are no easy routes to such a resolution, but then both sides have never tried seriously to address those deep, existential issues that plague Israelis and Palestinians alike: refugee status for the Palestinians and rejection in the region for the Israelis. Any cease-fire that is achieved this week will only crash under the barrage of attacks that will resume by both sides in due course, because of long-term Palestinian grievances and the immediate hardships caused by the Israeli siege. The siege has resulted in chronic stunted growth and malnutrition among Palestinians in Gaza, according to United Nations agencies and international aid groups. It is understandable that the Palestinians will keep fighting back against this inhuman Zionist-Israeli policy of treating them like caged animals.

Minimum requirements for a cease-fire among Palestinians include lifting the Israeli siege so that Palestinians in Gaza can resume full economic and social activities, and stopping Israeli attacks and assassinations of Palestinians in Gaza. This could bring about a cessation of Palestinian resistance attacks against Israel. However, both sides would again and again be confronted with the need to acknowledge and resolve the root causes of this nearly century-old conflict between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism.

The current mediation to achieve at least a temporary cease-fire is fascinating because of who is doing the mediating: Egypt, with assistance from Turkey and Qatar and a parallel attempt by France. The striking absence of the United States suggests important new developments: regional actors will play a more prominent role in mediation in the years ahead, and they are likely to focus more sharply on resolving the conflict by trying to tackle its underlying causes, rather than by following the failed American approach that sought to guarantee Israeli security as the essential first step and permanent foundation for any agreements.

The United States has monopolized Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli mediation without any success since the days of Camp David over 30 years ago. Now the U.S. is largely out of the mediation picture, partly because of its legacy of failure, but mainly because of its record of structural bias toward Israel. We have seen this bias reaffirmed last week, as President Barack Obama echoed the Israeli line that Israel had the right to defend itself against rockets from Gaza. That is correct, of course: Israel does have the right to defend itself, as every country does. But Israel is not playing a video game; it is engaged in a terrible war against Palestinians, whom it has repeatedly attacked, imprisoned, assassinated, colonized and besieged. So resolving that war requires addressing the legitimate rights of both sides, which the U.S. continues to have a hard time doing.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Washington’s mediating role in the Arab-Israeli conflict has been one of the most glaring, and largely self-inflicted, casualties of recent years. As regional actors step in to mediate with more integrity and fairness, it will be important to see what they can achieve in both the immediate goal of a cease-fire and the longer term need to resolve the deeper historical problems that are the real cause of the recurring fighting.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 21, 2012, on page 7.

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